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Is Violence in Sports Inevitable?

The New Orleans Saints' bounty-hunting scandal has rocked the NFL and provoked widespread outrage about the ethical violations involved in paying athletes to injure other players.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

The New Orleans Saints' bounty-hunting scandal has rocked the NFL and provoked widespread outrage about the ethical violations involved in paying athletes to injure other players.

But underlying the whole drama are often overlooked questions about the role that violence plays in athletic sports -- and not just in football. Sports like hockey, boxing and NASCAR thrive on fights, hits and explosions.

Fans have a thirst for violence and studies show that, within limits, as aggression goes up, so does viewership.

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While the Saints clearly crossed a line by rewarding players for hurting others, what's still fuzzy is where that line lies. Violence as a form of cheating is considered bad, but for now, brain-rattling collisions are still acceptable.

Barring major changes to our culture, experts say, at least some level of violence -- both within and outside the confines of official rules -- is likely here to stay.

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"Listen, people love the violence," said R. Todd Jewell, a sports economist at the University of North Texas in Denton. "The NFL is always going to try to make certain that there is an optimal level of violence in the game. If you took away the violence, there would be no football."

"Football is the most popular sport in the United States, and it's popular because of the violence," he added. "People like to watch big dudes smashing into each other."

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Since at least the time of ancient Roman gladiator fights and chariot races, sports have incorporated an element of danger, with strong enthusiasm from crowds in response to violence.

Among theories for why people like watching hard-hitting sports, Jewell said, some psychologists have proposed that fans experience a sense of catharsis from viewing blows and wrecks. Others have suggested that watching others be aggressive helps people vicariously release their own pent-up emotions.

Whatever the reason, fans demand a certain level of violence, at least for some sports. In hockey, for example, studies show that more violence leads to higher attendance at NHL games -- even though excessive aggression reduces a team's chance of winning. Meanwhile, the wildly brutal sport of mixed martial arts is growing rapidly. And a fireball explosion during the Daytona 500 last week boosted ratings and led to national headlines.

When it comes to financial incentive in professional sports, Jewell said, violence clearly pays, as long as it's not too extreme and doesn't take out the superstars, which explains strict rules that protect quarterbacks. And even though the desire to win -- not cause harm for harm's sake -- drove the Saints to reward bad behavior, the result was the same: Harder hits and more injuries.

Still, nobody wants to see players die or end up with irreparable brain damage, and pro sports leagues have responded with ever-tighter regulations that aim to retain enough violence to keep fans happy without destroying lives. In football, for example, a new five-meter change in kickoff positioning has led to more fair catches, which are safer than running returns. And new concussion research has spurred longer wait times before athletes can return to play.

In order to truly reduce or eliminate violence from sports, though, we may need to reevaluate our culture from the inside out, say some experts.

One factor that can drive violence in sports is the pressure to excel, with all the money and power that comes along with competitive victory, said Lynn Jamieson, an expert in governmental sports policy at Indiana University in Bloomington. And it's not just pro athletes that succumb, she said. Even kids who are driven to strive for scholarships or recognition can become overly aggressive at play, especially if they see their athletic role models taking each other out.

"In professional sports, it's a business, it's a job, it's a future, it's a livelihood, and players are going to put a lot on the line to keep moving forward and make themselves more distinctive as an individual or team," Jameson said. "That can lead to violence at that level."

Questioning violence in sports offers an opportunity to question humanity in general, added Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

In the case of the Saints, he said, it may be time to reexamine the way our society defines manhood and stop encouraging boys and men to value toughness over respect. By coming down hard on bad acts, he said, the NFL and other organizations can do a lot to model less violent behavior for the next generation of young athletes.

"Sport is such a worldwide platform that creates a common language among people that we can all understand regardless of race, ethnicity, language, or national culture," Lebowitz said. "What can we do within this common language to engage in conversation for being better?"